Horticulture careers with the National Trust: 500 years of garden history, a lifetime of opportunities

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Logo: National Trust

By Sian Thomas, National Trust Communications Officer

There has never been a better time to be involved with horticulture in the UK and with the National Trust, which looks after one of the greatest collections of historic gardens and garden plants in the world.

A gardener speaking with visitors in the Dutch Garden at Ascott, Buckinghamshire (National Trust Images/John Millar)
A gardener speaking with visitors in the Dutch Garden at Ascott, Buckinghamshire (National Trust Images/John Millar)

The conservation charity employs more than 600 gardeners who carefully care for, curate, manage and provide access to more than 500 years of garden history. In its care are 180 gardens and more than 200 parklands, and its living collections contain a staggering 4 million accessions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has a vast and diverse garden and parkland workforce to match, employing horticulturists across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, ably supported by an incredible army of 10,000 passionate and skilled garden volunteers. Together, these teams work hard throughout the year to deliver world class horticulture to millions of visitors, including those who visit from overseas specifically to visit gardens.

The range of roles includes senior national consultants who work with Head Gardeners on projects to showcase these amazing gardens, as well as researching how to tackle challenges all gardeners face in light of our changing climate. They explore, experiment and work with partners to ensure the gardens can be as sustainable and resilient to climate change as possible.

Other roles include propagators, apprentices, head gardeners, arborists, taxonomists and plant pathologists. The Trust employs people across the full spectrum of horticulture as part of its mission to conserve nature, beauty and history for all.

Andy Jasper, National Head of Gardens and Parklands for the National Trust, reflects that it is a hugely exciting time to be involved in horticulture in the UK.

‘Gardening is a process, a journey of constant change and therefore a career in gardening is – perhaps more than ever – exciting, continuously changing, very rewarding and one that offers plenty of progression and training. The pandemic has sparked a renewed awakening to the value of our green spaces, whether they are our own personal gardens or public gardens, parklands and countryside.

A timeline at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire records the names of estate gardeners stretching back to 1792 ©National Trust
A timeline at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire records the names of estate gardeners stretching back to 1792 ©National Trust

‘Our gardeners have loved seeing the amazing response in the last 18 months to their work (for many of them, their life’s work). We have seen visitors engaging with the gardens in new ways, asking questions about particular plants, propagation and pruning techniques as well as showing a greater awareness of the need to be more sustainable in how we garden: from water use, no-dig gardening and less reliance on chemicals to eradicating peat.

Andy continues: ‘Our horticulturists love to showcase how we have been working with partners to lead the way in what you can achieve by gardening with the grain of nature and providing horticultural ‘wow factors’ all year round.’

We met people in six of these roles, exploring their key skills and experience, how their role fits into the charity’s bigger picture, and what a typical day on the job looks like.

The Senior Propagator

Propagation is central to the work of the National Trust’s little-known Plant Conservation Centre (PCC) in Devon, which this year celebrates its 40th year. Years of trying different aspects of horticulture then recognising a passion for propagation and honing those skills has led Senior Propagator Ellie Pay to her career with the PCC.

‘As soon as I was outside, with my hands in the soil, I didn’t look back. I’m constantly learning, and I wish I’d started earlier so I could have acquired even more knowledge. It’s a proud feeling to stand back and look at all the new plants you’ve created,’ Ellie says.

Ellie and her colleagues use a range of techniques – seed, cuttings, division, layering and grafting – to propagate thousands of endangered, unusual and historic plants, all peat-free, for Trust gardens. The centre’s work is arguably more important than ever as we face into the effects of climate change, and historic plant collections become ever older.

For Ellie, there is huge job satisfaction in knowing that her work helps to not only keep plants alive, but also the stories and regional significance that is often tied to them.

The career changer

Gardeners at work in the Walled Garden at Llanerchaeron, Wales (National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)
Gardeners at work in the Walled Garden at Llanerchaeron, Wales (National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)

Like many in horticulture, gardener Saffron Prentis came to the sector as a career-changer. Following art college, she worked in the fine jewellery and furniture conservation departments of a well-known London auction house before completing her RHS Level 2 qualification.

She took a garden internship at Chartwell before volunteering, and later working, at the iconic Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, where she has worked as a gardener for four years. She works across the garden on a wide range of tasks including hedge cutting, lawn mowing and planting, but has particular responsibility for part of the rose garden and the new Mediterranean-style Delos garden created in partnership with landscape designer Dan Pearson.

As part of the creation of Delos, Saffron helped select stone from the quarry, experimented with materials to find the best free-draining medium and helped source plants and seed from the UK and Greece.

Saffron says: ‘I love the variety of plants we get to work with at Sissinghurst, and the teamwork. There’s always something to learn, you can never know it all. Working here, there are incredible opportunities to expand your plant knowledge and craft as a gardener. Gardening is a creative process, just like painting or sculpting. Creating is part of who I am.’

The Gardens Consultant

The Trust also employs a team of senior Gardens Consultants who work with head gardeners and their teams - and other cross-disciplinary professionals such as curators, archaeologists and designers - in their regions to offer technical advice, mentorship, problem solving and project development.

Annette Dalton is one such consultant, working with 20 gardens in the Lake District and North East England.

After her Botanic Gardens Diploma from Glasnevin, in Dublin, she worked as an Assistant Head Gardener in the Victorian Walled Garden at Kylemore Abbey, then Horticultural Amenity Manager at Kew, followed by Garden Manager at Wisley and National Volunteer Manager for the RHS.

‘Gardens Consultants need good, solid experience in the world of horticulture. It really helps to have been a Head Gardener and to have managed teams, as it hones your skills in persuasiveness and time management,’ she says.

In typical times, Annette spends three days a week on site (including travel) and two working from home or at the nearest Trust hub office. ‘There can be long days and lots of travel, but you have the flexibility to manage your own workload and find the best balance,’ she says.

‘What I find most exciting is being involved in projects - bouncing creative ideas off other professionals. As Gardens Consultants we can share the insights we have into the garden, its visitors and the wider Trust, helping guide teams toward solutions that look after our gardens in the best possible way.’

She urges anyone considering this kind of role to not be deterred if they ‘can’t tick every box’ in the person specification. ‘If you haven’t studied a particular area of knowledge listed in depth, with sufficient horticultural experience and a grounding and passion for the subject, you can learn more on the job, with support from colleagues.’

She advises prospective candidates to create their own learning opportunities to strengthen any areas of weakness – from volunteering to work on projects and attending conferences to signing up for a wide range of sector newsletters and bulletins to keep up to date. ‘You can do an awful lot to round out your skills if you’re curious enough,’ says Annette.

The Apprentice

After 20 years in catering, Paul Sanderson wanted a change. Now, he has just finished a two-year horticulture apprenticeship and is beginning a full-time Assistant Gardener position at Antony in Cornwall.

‘I thought apprenticeships were just for 16-year-olds, but they’re open to all ages. To anyone thinking about an apprenticeship I’d say it’s the best form of training – it's on the job, you’re working with other gardeners, earning a full-time wage and everything is in place for you to learn.

‘You do have to have a passion for plants and real commitment, because it’s a lot of work, including weekends spent on assignments.’

What misconceptions might prospective Assistant Gardeners have?

‘Some may think we’re out with baskets on arm, deadheading flowers, but you need to be physically fit for long days and a wide range of jobs around the garden. And there is some volunteer management; each day we give the volunteers their roles and ensure they’re working safely.

‘Whatever you put into it, you’ll get back out.’

Andy Eddy, Head Gardener at Osterley, Middlesex (National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus)
Andy Eddy, Head Gardener at Osterley, Middlesex (National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus)

The Garden & Outdoors Manager

‘There isn’t a typical day,’ says Katherine Alker of her post as Garden & Outdoors Manager for the portfolio of South Worcestershire. Working first as a gardener and then Head Gardener, she now oversees two gardeners, an Area Ranger and Assistant Ranger at Croome, a ‘Capability’ Brown-designed landscape, and a gardener at The Firs, as well as two other smaller properties in the portfolio.

‘It’s a job in which you learn a lot, and you have to have a good overview of many different areas,’ Katherine says. Though there is little practical work involved, the role is one of huge variety, ranging from dealing with contractors and tenders, understanding legal requirements and ensuring compliance to working on external partnerships and grants and liaising with tenant farmers and potential donors.

The role includes weekend and some out-of-hours working, including deputising for the General Manager and a weekly slot on the Duty Manager roster – the scope of this varies depending on property, but at Croome it means responsibility in case of crisis.

Pre-pandemic she gave regular talks and tours and regards sharing what makes Croome special – and advocating for the landscape – a key part of the role.

First and foremost, she says this is a ‘people person’ role, with responsibility for ‘bringing everyone along on what we want to achieve’ and ensuring her team of gardeners, rangers and volunteers are ‘happy, competent and confident’.

The Head Gardener

Andy Eddy is one of the Trust’s 101 Head Gardeners. Living onsite at Osterley in west London, Andy manages 1.5FTE gardener roles and a team of volunteers, working closely alongside the property’s ranger team. He began in farming and studied Agriculture Management before taking a role at Kew, helping restore the arboretum after the 1987 storm.

Fundamentally, he says, his role is about making sure the garden, his team and the public are safe; beyond that, the role can encompass ‘anything and everything’.

He is very much a working Head Gardener, spending around 60% of his time getting his hands dirty. ‘I can design, order plants, and put plants in the ground, the whole process. Knowing the historical context of your garden is important – we have 18th century elements here, and a Tudor walled garden – but we’re not rarefied and esoteric. Turning up, working hard, and imparting your knowledge, are key attributes.’

Andy is Duty Manager one day a week. ‘We’re a big, complex, public-facing organisation, dealing with all the tasks and challenges that come with that. If you’re not comfortable with the more operational side of things, you might prefer to look at private gardening work.’

For those wanting to move into a Head Gardener role with the Trust, Andy advises: ‘Know the Trust, visit your local gardens, make sure your plant knowledge is good. And consider volunteering – all three gardeners I’ve worked with here came to their roles via that route.’

Find out more about gardening with National Trust at

There are a number of horticulture jobs currently being advertised by National Trust. See them all here 


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Posted On: 07/01/2022

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